Garner: Opinion

Column: Getting used to change

By Johnny Whitfield

Johnny Whitfield
Johnny Whitfield ehyman@newsobserver.com

There is a lot to love about the English language. It can be rough and bawdy. It can be elegant. It can be confusing, even for native speakers. Like all living things, the English language changes with time. New words come into fashion, old words slowly fade out of common usage.

Any parent will tell you they have learned a lot of new words from their children. And, if you’re a geeky dad, like me, you try to incorporate those new words into your own usage so you can be highly regarded by your children and their friends. Of course, the children cringe at the idea of Mom or Dad trying to conscript a new word for their own use. I’ve gotten more than a few eyerolls from my daughters when I expressed my belief that something was on fleek.

When my oldest daughter, Anna Kate, set up my Twitter account for me, I asked her to include a sentence in the personal profile that the opinions in my tweets were my own and not my company’s. She wrote this: Tweets are my own because I’m fly. I lived with that for a while, but soon thought it might not be good for a 49-year-old man to be too public about his fly-ness.

My youngest daughter, Pitt, has become affectionately known around our house as the grammar Nazi. Her biggest pet peeve is the use of the word “good,” in place of “well.” Being a good old Southern boy, it is a common misuse in my language. I figure she corrects me, on average, five times a day. That number skyrockets on the weekends.

But when people ask me how I’m doing and I tell them I’m good, they pretty much understand me. My daughter, and others of her ilk, would do well to accept that notion. Words change. Heck, consider the word “change” itself. It was brought into the world as a verb. “Change the baby’s diaper.” or “Change your shirt. That one’s dirty.” The word implies action.

Today, that word can just as easily be a noun. The coins rattling in your pocket that you got back from the store clerk when you didn’t need to give her an entire dollar, is also called change. Then there’s my favorite: agents of change. Change is a concept. It’s this nebulous notion that something will be different because of an action we take.

The Latin word for change is cambire, which means to exchange. I give you a red shirt. You give me a blue shirt and now the color of my shirt has changed!

That definition of that word makes me ponder local town boards. In some cases change is glacial. In other cases, it cascades like a giant waterfall. In Zebulon, the three re-elected commissioners have a total of 62 years experience as commissioners. The next four years don’t promise much change. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if folks are happy with the performance of their elected leaders.

In Wendell, however, the new average age of a town commissioner fell dramatically when three 20-somethings joined a town board whose senior member is in his early 30s. Three of the five town board members are new to their jobs. They will have a lot to learn over the next few months and it will be interesting to see how a new generation views and implements change, if they do at all.

Whatever changes come in the future – linguistically or otherwise – there will never be but one meaning to the words at the end of this column.

Merry Christmas!

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